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Lessons from the crisis in Madagascar, an interview with Erik Patel

On March 17th of this year the President of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana, resigned his post. This made way for Andry Rajoelina, mayor of Madagascar’s capital, to install himself as president with help from the military.

The unrest and confusion that usually accompanies such a coup brought disaster on many of Madagascar’s biological treasures. Within days of Ravalomanana’s resignation, armed gangs, allegedly funded by Chinese traders, entered two of Madagascar’s world-renowned national parks, Marojejy and Masoala parks, and began to log rosewood, ebonies, and other valuable hardwoods.

Erik Patel with best silky sifaka tracker, Nestor. Photo by Rachel Kramer.

The pillaging lasted months. Park rangers were forced to leave their posts and parks were officially closed. Tourism stopped entirely: in a country where half of the children under five are malnourished this proved tragic for local economies. In addition, western nations stopped much of their financial aid into the country, just when the people needed it most.

The situation began to calm down over the summer. One sign of this is a recent action by authorities in Madagascar to block a shipment of illegally harvested wood until a fine is paid to the government.

However, now that the crisis has abated—at least for the time being—it’s time to take stock. In order to do so, Mongabay spoke to Erik Patel, an expert on the Critically Endangered Silky Sifaka and frequent visitor to Madagascar, to find out what the damage looks like firsthand and to see what lessons might be learned. You were just in Madagascar—what did you see? How bad is the damage?

Erik Patel: It was relieving to see that Marojejy N.P., arguably Madagascar’s most biologically diverse protected area, had finally reopened after being closed (due to the lawlessness associated with massive illegal logging) for the first time in its history. When I was there in late May, relative calm had returned to the tourist zone which was now guarded by half a dozen police from Sambava, a nearby coastal city. Tomorrow I am entering the park to begin a new 6 month silky sifaka study. I believe that our presence there will deter logging in the small region we will be occupying.

Illegal logging in Madagascar. Photo was taken anonymously.

Selective logging of precious wood in Madagascar, such as rosewood, is known to be accompanied by increases in fire and hunting. During the five weeks when thousands of people entered Marojejy, reports of bushmeat hunting increased, particularly for eels, crayfish, and small mammals as well as lemurs. Some small trees were also cut for fuelwood and various cooking sites adjacent to the new rosewood trails inside Marojejy were found. At least 10km of new trails have been created between the park entrance and Camp 1 (Mantella) within the tourist zone. I was shocked by the extensive network of large new trails, no doubt many of which have not been found yet. Is there any progress on the ground?

Erik Patel: Although the small tourist zone is calm now there are still reports of rosewood logging happening in the far north of the park where there is direct road access to Sambava. Even more distressing is the fact that these selfish criminals are about to receive a huge payday: 35 million dollars of rosewood is at the port of Vohemar right now in over 170 huge containers. Why do you refer to the logging in Marojejy National Park as a ‘tragedy with villains’?

Transporting illegal logs in Madagascar. Photo was take anonymously.

Erik Patel: Harvesting these extremely heavy and valuable hardwoods is a labor intensive activity requiring coordination between local residents who manually cut the trees, but receive little profit, and a criminal network of exporters, domestic transporters, and corrupt officials who initiate the process and reap most of the enormous profits. This is a tragedy with villains unlike habitat disturbance from subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture which has been well described as a “tragedy without villains”. Local people benefit very little from rosewood logging. In most cases, rosewood logging is harmful to local people because of loss of tourism and violation of local taboos.

Precious wood logging has angered local communities by trampling on the beliefs and taboos of local people. In traditional Sakalava culture, ebony is a sacred wood only cut by priests who conduct traditional ceremonies with ebony staffs.

The chief of Ankalontany, a Sakalava Malagasy village in the northeast, explains that in 2005 “some strangers from outside our village came here. They started cutting ebony and they clearly had no right. We asked for their authorization but they said they didn’t have to show us papers. They said they had police clearance and we can’t stop them.”

Logging in Madagascar. Photo by Erik Patel.

Laurent Tutu, president of the forest association of Ankalontany, remarked: “it hurts us to see our trees cut like this. The forest loses its personality.”

The value of such stockpiles are staggering. In Vohemar and Antalaha, high quality rosewood is purchased by the Chinese exporters for $5 to 6$ USD per kilogram, but in some cases $10 to $11 USD per kilogram. By comparison, local people are only paid between 3000AR to 5000AR per day for finding, cutting, and dragging the enormous tree pieces. A two meter piece or “bola bola” weighing about 150kg is worth about $300 USD (See Figure 4) which is more than the average annual per capita income in Madagascar which averages $255 USD (US AID, 2005). A single 25m meter tall mature rosewood tree may be 400 or 500 years old with a retail value of approximately $3750 USD. How might the logging be affecting the silky sifaka?

Erik Patel: In general, the negative ecological impacts of selective rosewood logging include violating local taboos as well as ecological consequences such as increased likelihood of fire, invasive species, impaired habitat, and loss in genetic diversity.

Silky sifaka mother with one of her young and the baby of another mother. Photo by Jeff Gibbs.

In Marojejy’s particular case, unsustainable manual selective logging has had severe accessory effects including loss of tourism, creation of numerous new large trails, an increase in bushmeat hunting, and destruction of a likely food species of the silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus), one of the rarest primates in the world. A few rosewood (Dalbergia louveli) tress have been found within the habitat of my main silky sifaka study group at Camp 2 (Marojejia) of Marojejy which occasionally eat leaves of the rosewood tree. Milne-edwards’ sifakas do eat the leaves of pallisandre (Dalbergia baroni) in Ranomafana National Park and Diademed sifakas consume leaves of this genus as well. Many of the tree species that are being logged are considered threatened (i.e. Vulnerable or Endangered by the IUCN)—what protection do these species have in Madagascar?

Erik Patel: It is shocking and intolerable that none of Madagascar’s rapidly dwindling precious hardwoods, such as rosewood and ebony, receive any protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Brazilian rosewood Dalbergia nigra, listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, is the only type of rosewood in the world that is protected under CITES. Although Dalbergia louveli, found in Marojejy National Park, is even more endangered, it has not yet been included in the CITES Appendices.

Children in Akavandra. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Extending CITES regulation to Dalbergia. louveli would require exporting and importing nations to verify the timber was legally acquired and the logging not detrimental to species survival. Like big – leaf mahogany, the premier commercial timber species of Latin America, CITES may be the only way to reduce unsustainable exploitation of precious wood in Madagascar. However, also as in the case of big – leaf mahogany, enforcing these international regulations will be difficult and require a new multi-lateral, cost – effective system to determine if exported wood has met the non – detrimental and legal criteria. How would you recommend tackling poverty in Madagascar, while at the same time safeguarding its ecological treasures?

Erik Patel: Rosewood logging is less tied to local poverty than other forms of habitat disturbance because local residents receive little money from the rosewood barons in Antalaha.

Increased village level efforts to assist in family planning, such as birth control, are needed in the Marojejy/Andapa region which has one of the highest population densities in Madagascar.

Adult female with six-week-old. Photo by Jeff Gibbs.

Increased tourism to Marojejy and nearby Anjanaharibe-Sud can help alleviate local poverty as well protect these ecological treasures. What lessons would you suggest people take away from this crisis?

Erik Patel: Given the extensive corruption at all levels, it is difficult for us to do much about the 35 million dollars of illegally logged rosewood (from Marojejy and Masoala) which is right now about to be exported from Vohemar. Media is one of the few weapons we have. The extensive illegal selective logging which is occurring in Marojejy and Masoala challenges the traditional notion that large-scale commercial logging has not really yet occurred in Madagascar’s rainforests. Given that bushmeat hunting, harvesting of other forest products, new roads into the parks, and entire park closures are now known to accompany precious hardwood logging in Marojejy and Masoala, it may be worth re-evaluating whether “highly selective small scale logging of precious woods such as rosewood and ebony…may not have a serious ecological impact overall…” (IUCN, 2007, p. 6).

Documentary video on silky sifakas, featuring Erik Patel:

Angels of the Forest: Silky Sifaka Lemurs of Madagascar from Sharon Pieczenik on Vimeo.

To learn more about the silky sifaka:

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